Babes in bondage

arts@sfbg.com

YEAR IN FILM ‘Tis the season to dismantle. For us film critic types, that means picking over the past year’s movie offerings with the ill-advised intensity of Natalie Portman working a hangnail in Black Swan. (That scene was so gross, yes?)

Speaking of sadomasochistic tendency (and La Portman), 2010 saw an intriguing mini-trend in psychological horror, most exemplified by a trio of films: Vincenzo Natali’s riotous sci-fi cheesefest Splice, Mark Romanek’s austerely devastating Never Let Me Go, and Darren Aronofsky’s aforementioned phenom Black Swan. Superficially, these movies couldn’t be more different. Splice is an homage to B exploitation and Cronenbergian body horror; Never Let Me Go is a pedigreed adaptation of a dead-serious study of emotional subtlety and Black Swan is a grandiose, visually exhilarating spectacle, not to mention one of the weirdest films ever to likely get an Oscar nod.

Dig a little deeper (perhaps with Winona Ryder’s Black Swan nail file?) and some surprisingly similar themes, motifs, and motivations become clear. This new breed of female-centered “body horror” challenges certain well-worn horror tropes, whether intentionally or not, along with the subject-object relationship of women in movies in general. And while female body horror is certainly nothing new (vaginas with teeth, anyone?) these movies do offer a refreshing new spin.

Genetic clones, genetic hybrids, and guano-crazy ballerinas, the female characters in these films exemplify the idea of the “other” superficially, but also collapse the traditional idea the “monstrous feminine.” Even if we aren’t meant to identify with them in totality, their terror is still our terror, not some janky Freudian nightmare of their otherness and our supposed repulsion to it. This kind of female subject-object horror revisionism has been seen before — Georges Franju’s 1960 French quasi-surrealist masterpiece Eyes Without a Face and the raucous little Canadian cult indie Ginger Snaps (2000) come to mind — but it hasn’t punctured mainstream Hollywood film in quite this way before.

All three movies work off the principle relationship of the matriarch and her offspring: Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Dren (Delphine Chaneac) in Splice; Nina (Natalie Portman) and her mother (Barbara Hershey, her plastic surgery–pummeled visage unintentionally representing the concept of “face horror”) in Black Swan; and Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) and later Madame (Nathalie Richard) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan) in Never Let Me Go.

Black Swan goes so far as to encourage a curiously gender-flipped Oedipal reading of Nina’s relationship with her (s)mother, who feverishly paints portraits of her daughter while Nina slaves away at ballet practice. Indeed, the movie’s true WTF moment comes when, at the behest of her tyrannical director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), Nina masturbates, almost violently so, until she realizes that her mother is watching her from the bedroom corner.

From her raw, toe-shoe ravaged feet to her undernourished frame to the intermittent appearances of blood oozing from imaginary sores, Nina experiences physical and psychological disturbances that lead to an eventual complete breakdown and physical metamorphosis in the classic body horror tradition. “I wanna be perfect,” she laments. That desire for perfection ultimately manifests itself in the masochistic self-infliction of physical pain to achieve transcendence. It’s a subject Aronofsky mined to great effect in his last film, 2008’s The Wrestler.

Psychological and physical metamorphoses are rampant in the movie, characterized by Nina’s overly precious pink butterfly wallpaper and Thomas’ uber-masculine Rorschach blotter–inspired living room. In a motif most reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Nina begins to see nonhuman physical transformations in the form of scratches that elicit bristle-like feathers on her back, much in the same way The Fly‘s Seth Brundle grew coarse insect hairs as he slowly morphs into “Brundlefly.” Nina finally asserts her sexual independence by absorbing her “black swan” by way of sexually demonstrative doppelganger, Lily (Mila Kunis). In the process, she becomes something all-powerful and completely unknowable, achieving total perfection. She also ceases to be human.

Transcending the entrapment of biology plays a major role in Splice and Never Let Me Go as well. In Splice, Dren’s jacked-up DNA is a source of fear and revulsion to Elsa’s husband and coresearcher, Clive (Adrien Brody), and she is held captive while they study her in their pursuit of greater scientific truth. But her creator-mother can’t help but delight in her otherness, which mirrors her own in some perverse way. She even insists that Dren, who resembles something akin to a beautiful chicken-alien-minotaur, is “perfectly formed.” The moment Dren reveals her magnificent wings for the first time (wings she didn’t even know she possessed) recalls Nina’s crazed transformation in Black Swan. Both characters eventually embrace their outsider status, although it’s hard to say if it really works out for either of them. (Baby steps.)

Officially, Never Let Me Go isn’t really a horror film, but more of a Merchant Ivory–style sci-fi. In addition to being an exercise in stylistic restraint and melancholy, Romanek’s film is an affecting, straight-faced mediation on life and loss. But its core conceit can easily be read as a story of body horror as well. Kathy, the pretty, waifish clone-girl at the center of the narrative, grows up at a genteel English boarding school called Hailsham, a place she finds as warm and nurturing as the womb. But it’s also a place from which there is no escape. By virtue of her very birth, Kathy is bound by a grisly obligation, metaphorically and literally: eventually her body will be dismantled bit by bit, her organs redistributed, so that in her death (or “completion,” as its dubbed in a kind of gentle Newspeak) “real” people may live. But her body’s eventual betrayal is not Kathy’s ultimate source of horror. Her true other-ness isn’t represented by physicality, but by spirituality: like all her fellow clones, she must question the very idea that she is human, what it means to be human, and whether or not she even possesses that supposed essential blueprint, a soul. The audience shares Kathy’s existential horror at that most inner fear. Eventually, though, it’s virtually impossible to not acknowledge what makes Kathy, like Nina and even Dren, so potently human. Their humanity, of course, is in their very imperfection. Nobody’s perfect, except for maybe that little spitfire Natalie Portman. At this point, I think it’s safe to say she’s at least better than the rest of us.